In the four weeks leading up to the Minnesota Vikings’ battle at Arrowhead Stadium with the Kansas City Chiefs, they exploded offensively.
The Vikings gained at least 430 total yards in each game and averaged 32 points per game. But the Chiefs held them to 23 points and just 308 total yards on Sunday. Why? Because Kansas City exploited the Vikings’ biggest weaknesses on offense by creating pressure up the middle against quarterback Kirk Cousins and slowing down the run game without dedicating an extra safety.
According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins was under pressure on 17 drop backs. He went 4-for-16 passing for 55 yards with one touchdown and one sack. Center Garrett Bradbury and guards Pat Elflein and Josh Kline totaled 10 pressures allowed in the game, while tackles Brian O’Neill and Riley Reiff were largely effective, giving up just four.
The Vikings struggled especially against monster defensive lineman Chris Jones, who created seven pressures on his own. Linemen Tanoh Kpassagnon and Emmanuel Ogbah combined for another eight.
From the outset of the game, pressure on Cousins caused him to throw off platform. Here are some examples of the interior push forcing the Vikings’ O-linemen back into their quarterback, causing him to adjust arm angles or shorten his step to throw.
If any of this sounds familiar, you’re right. You have heard this story before, both in Green Bay and Chicago.
In Week 2, PFF credited nose tackle Kenny Clark with seven pressures and Dean Lowry with six more. In Week 4, Eddie Goldman and a rotating cast of interior D-linemen managed eight hurries (and Khalil Mack added seven by himself).
Against Detroit — the Vikings’ 500-yard, 42-point explosion — the Lions created one pressure by an interior D-lineman.
It doesn’t take the All-22 film to see why Cousins is greatly altered by pressure up the middle. The first play (and first clip in the video) shows him taking a short drop, standing in one spot while he goes through his progressions and ultimately making an ill-advised throw into the flat. Had he dropped deeper, moved in the pocket or rolled out to go off schedule, the play might have been successful.
While Bradbury and Elflein have struggled as much as any linemen in the NFL, ranking 86th and 89th out of 90 interior O-linemen in PFF pass blocking grade, it has become clear over the last two years that PFF’s offseason finds that quarterbacks routinely create their own pressure applies to the Vikings’ situation.
Sometimes the QB’s issues with middle pressure accumulate throughout the game. Late in the matchup against Kansas City, Cousins had several opportunities to find open receivers but checked down (and missed) despite having little-to-no pressure.
Jones will not be the last interior rusher the Vikings face. Against Dallas they will take on Malik Collins, who is 14th (of 71) by PFF’s grades in pass rushing, Shelby Harris of Denver (13th), Clark (10th) and Goldman (16th).
2 deep safeties on first/second down
Over the last four weeks the Vikings simply destroyed teams with play-action. In wins over New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and Washington he racked up 650 yards off play-action at 13.0 yards per attempt. On Sunday he went 7-for-13 for 65 yards (5.0 yards per attempt).
One of the reasons the Vikings failed to hit on deep throws (aside from pressure) is that Kansas City often played two-deep safeties, even in running downs. On the first-and-10 in the video below, the Vikings attempt to run a play-action with two deep routes on the outsides and crossing routes underneath. The deep safeties stay over the top and KC’s linebackers pick up the receivers. Add that with Jones rushing up field and Cousins ends up with an incompletion.
Struggles on the offensive line to create rushing lanes for Dalvin Cook early gave KC little reason to respect the run.
But even if Cook had exploded on occasion, the Chiefs might have continued to dedicate their defense to covering deep shots. Other opponents like the Eagles and Lions sold out completely to stop the run and the Vikings abused them with play-action. After Sunday’s performance by the Chiefs, we may see more teams daring the Vikings to beat them on the ground.
The Vikings certainly had an ugly offensive performance against the Chiefs but they did find some responses to Kansas City’s interior pressure and use of deep safeties. One of those was the screen pass.
Cousins found CJ Ham for a 32-yard gain and got Cook the ball in the screen game on two other explosive plays. Another was called back because Bradbury was flagged for being too far down field.
The screen game has been highly successful for the Vikings. It fits both their MVP-caliber running back and athletic offensive linemen. While Cousins said after the game that screens can either put you in the “poor house or penthouse,” they have been a lot more rich than poor for him this year.
One of the benefits of screens is that they take advantage of defensive aggressiveness. The Chiefs blew up the line on screens but that only meant they were farther upfield and away from the ballcarrier.
Late in the game, however, the Chiefs did sniff out an Irv Smith screen for a big loss. It’s clearly a play that can only be used occasionally for a counterpunch.
Attack the middle
When the quarterbacks read a defense one of the first things they are looking for is whether the middle is open or closed. Two deep safeties means the middle is open, which, generally speaking, gives the offense a chance to attack that area.
Here’s one example of a vertical concept with Smith breaking in at around 20 yards downfield, right in front of the deep safety. Kyle Rudolph’s route down the middle occupied the middle linebacker, giving Cousins an open throwing lane to find Smith nearly right on top of the logo.
Run against 6/7-man boxes and out of shotgun
This year 22.6% of Cook’s rushes have come against 8-man boxes, which hasn’t often been an issue because the Vikings use fullbacks and tight ends to handle extra defenders. However when the opponent’s defensive line is dominating, life becomes much easier for linebackers and safeties who are crowding the box.
For this reason, some teams attempt to only run against boxes with seven or fewer players. Arizona, for example, has only given Chase Edmonds the ball against an 8-man box on 3.5% of his runs. LeSean McCoy is at 5.6% and Joe Mixon 5.9%. There are eight running backs regulars who see 8-man boxes less than 10% of the time (two for KC).
One of the Vikings’ most successful runs on Sunday game out of the shotgun against a 7-man box. On the play, the tackles double teamed the defensive end and worked up to the safety, giving Cook one of his few big holes on the day.
The beauty of the NFL has always been the adjustments. Somebody comes out with something that works and everyone tries to stop it. Over the first half of the season, the Vikings had a model that worked exceptionally well. But Kansas City adapted and got strong performances out of key players in the middle. Because of that they were able to slow down the Vikings’ talented offense.
Now the question is how the Vikings tweak their gameplan to stay one step ahead.